Way of the Wolf Chapter One

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Northern Louisiana, March, the forty-third year of the Kurian Order: The green expanse once known as the KisatchieForest slowly digests the works of man. A forest in name only, it is a jungle of wet heat and dead air, a fetid overflowing of swamps, bayous, and backwaters. The canopy of interwoven cypress branches shrouded in Spanish moss creates a gloom so thick that twilight rules even at midday. In the muted light, collapsing houses subside every which way as roadside stops decay in vine-choked isolation, waiting for traffic that will not return.

A long file of people is moving among moss-covered trunks to the piping cries of startled birds. At the front and rear of the column are men and women in buckskin, their faces tanned to the same weather-beaten color as their leather garments. They carry sheathed rifles, and all are ready to use their weapons at the first hint of danger. The guns are for the defense of five clusters of families clad in ill-fitting lemon-colored overalls at the center of the file. Patches of brighter color under the arms and along the inner thighs suggest the garments once glowed a vivid optic yellow and are now faded from heavy use. A string of five pack mules follows behind them under the guidance of teenage versions of the older warriors.

At the head of the column, well behind a pair of silent scouts, a young man scans the trail. He still has some of the awkward gangliness of youth, but his dark eyes hold a canny depth. His shoulder-length black hair, tightly tied at the back of his head, shines like a raven's feathers even in the half-light. With his dusky skin and buckskin garb, he could be mistaken for a native resident of this area three centuries before: perhaps the son of some wandering French trapper and a Choctaw maiden. His long-fingered hands wander across his heavy belt, from holstered pistol to binoculars, touching the haft of his broad-bladed parang before moving on to the canteens at his waist. A scratched and battered compass case dangles from a black nylon cord around his neck, and a stout leather map tube bumps his back from its slung position. Unlike his men, he is hatless. He turns now and again to check the positions of his soldiers and to examine the faces of his yellow-clad dependents as if gauging how much distance is left in their weary bodies. But his restless eyes do not remain off the trail for long.

If they come, they'll come tonight. Lt. David Valentine returned to that thought again as the sun vanished below the horizon. He had hoped to get his charges farther north of the old interstate before nightfall, but progress had slowed on this, their fourth day out from Red River Crossing. He and his Wolves shielded twenty-seven men, women, and children who had hazarded the run to freedom. The families were now adapted to the rigors of the trail, and followed orders well. But they came from a world where disobedience meant death, so that trait was understandable.

If they had been traveling by themselves, the detachment of Wolves would already be in the FreeTerritory. But Valentine was responsible for seeing the Red River farmhands brought safely north. Four hours ago, the yellow-clad group had crossed the final barrier: the road and rail line connecting Dallas with the Mississippi at Vicksburg. Then Valentine had driven them another two miles. Now they had little left to give.

It was hard to quiet his mind, with so much to think about on his first independent command in the Kurian Zone. And quieting his mind, keeping lifesign down, was literally a question of life and death with night coming on. Being a Wolf was as much a matter of mental as physical discipline, for the Reapers sensed the activity of human minds, especially when fearful and tense. Every Wolf had a method of subsuming consciousness into a simpler, almost feral form. But burdened with new responsibilities and with night swallowing the forest, Valentine struggled against the worries that shot up like poisonous weeds in his mind. The Reapers read lifesign better at night. His charges were giving off enough to be read for miles even in the depths of the Kisatchie. If his Wolves' minds were added to the total, the Reapers would home on it like moths drawn to a bonfire.

A trilling call from ahead broke into his anxieties. Valentine raised his arm, halting the column. Garnett, one of his scouts, gestured to him.

"Water, sir, in that little holler," the scout reported as Valentine came up. "Looks safe enough."

"Good. We'll rest there for an hour," Valentine said, loudly enough for the column to hear. "No more. We're still too close to the road to camp."

The faces of the farm families brightened in contrast to the deepening night as they drank from the spring trickling down the side of a shallow ravine. Some removed shoes and rubbed aching feet. Valentine unscrewed the cap on his plastic canteen, waiting until the families and his men had a chance to drink.

A faint yelping echoed from the south. Wolves dived for cover behind trees and fallen logs. The yellow-clad families, who lacked the ability to hear the baying, shrank together in alarm at the sudden movement.

Sergeant Patel, Valentine's senior noncommissioned officer, appeared at his elbow. "Dogs? Very bad luck, sir. Or..."

Valentine, careering along in his runaway train of thought, only half heard Patel's words. The families broke out in noisy consternation.

"Silence," Valentine rasped at the civilians, his voice cracking with unaccustomed harshness. "Sergeant, who knows this area best?"

Patel's eyes did not leave the woods to the south. "Maybe Lugger, sir. Or the scouts. Lugger pulled a lot of patrols in this area; I think her people lived westaways."

"Would you get her, please?"

Patel pointed to and brought up Lugger, a seasoned veteran whose limber, sparse frame belied her name. She held her rifle in hands with alabaster knuckles.

"Sir?" she breathed.

"Lugger, we may have to do some shooting soon," Valentine said in an undertone, trying not to alarm the unsettled civilians. "Where's a good spot for it?"

Her eyes wandered skyward in thought. "There's an old barn we used to use on patrol. West of here, more like northwest, I reckon. Concrete foundation, and the loft's in good shape."

"How long to get there?"

"Under an hour, sir, even with them," she said, jerking her chin toward the huddled families. Their yellow overalls now looked bluish in the darkness. Valentine nodded encouragement.

"Solid foundation," she repeated. "And a big water trough. We used to keep it filled with a rain catcher."

Make a decision.

"No help in that direction. Mallow's more to the east, but it will have to do," Valentine said. Mallow, the senior lieutenant of Zulu Company, had remained in the borderlands with a cache of supplies to help them make it the rest of the way to the OzarkFreeTerritory. He considered something else. "Think you could find the rendezvous at night?"

"God willing, sir," she responded after a moment's cogitation.

"Take a spare canteen and run. Ask Mallow to come with everything he can."

"Yes, sir. But I don't need my gun to keep me company. I think you'll need every bullet you got before morning," she said, unslinging her rifle.

Valentine nodded. "Let's not waste time. Tell Patel where to go; then run for our lives."

Lugger handed her rifle to the senior aspirant, spoke briefly to Patel and the scouts, then disappeared into the darkness. Valentine listened with hard ears to her fading footfalls, as fast as his beating heart, and thought, Please, Mallow, for God's sake forget about the supplies and come quick.

As his men dusted the area around the spring with crushed red pepper, Valentine approached the frightened families.

"They found us?" asked Fred Brugen, the patriarch of the group. Valentine smiled into their dirty, tired faces.

"We heard something behind us. Could be they cut our trail-could be a dog got the wrong end of a skunk. But as I said, we have to play it safe and move to a better place to sleep. Sorry to cut the halt short."

The refugees winced and tightened their mouths at the news, but did not complain. Complainers disappeared in the night in the Kurian Zone.

"The good news is that we're really close to a place we can rest and get a hot meal or two. Personally, I'm getting sick of corn bread and jerky." He squatted down to the kids' level and forced some extra enthusiasm into his voice. "Who wants hot-cakes for breakfast tomorrow morning?"

The kids lit up like fireflies, nodding with renewed energy.

"Okay, then," he finished as he filled his canteen, forcing himself to go through the motions nonchalantly. "Everybody take one more drink of water, and let's go."

The aspirants somehow got the pack mules moving, and the column trudged forward into the darkness. With curses matching the number of stumbles brought on by confusion and fatigue in the night, the column continued north. Valentine led the way. A rope around his waist stretched back to Sergeant Patel at the tail end of the file. He bade the families to hold on to it to keep everyone together in the dark.

One scout guided him, and a second brought up the rear, in close contact with two fire teams shepherding the column's tail, their phosphorous candles ready. If the enemy was close enough for their dogs to be heard, the Reapers could be upon them at any moment. Valentine resigned himself to the orders he would give if they were set upon in the open: he would abandon his charges and flee north. Even a few Wolves were more valuable to the FreeTerritory than a couple of dozen farmers.

Valentine, continuing on that grim line of thought, decided that if he were a battle-hardened veteran from the campfire stories, he would stake the farmers out like goats to a prowling tiger, then ambush whatever took the bait. The death of the defenseless goat was worth getting the tiger. Those win-at-all-costs leaders from the Old World history books would never be swayed by sleepy voices repeatedly asking, "Is it much farther, Momma?"

"Close up and move on. Close up and move on," Valentine said over his shoulder, hurrying the column. Wolves picked up tired children, carrying them as easily as they bore then-weapons.

They found the farm exactly as Lugger had described. Her Wolf's eye for terrain and detailed memory of places and paths would astound anyone who did not know the caste.

The barn was a little bigger than Valentine would have liked with only twenty-two guns. No time to be picky, not with the Reapers on our trail, he thought. Anyplace with the trees cleared away and walls would have to do.

Garnett entered with blade unsheathed, covered by his comrades' hunting bows and rifles. The parang-a shortened machete used by the Wolves-gleamed in the mist-shrouded moonlight. A few bats fluttered out, disturbed from their pursuit of insects among the rafters. The scout appeared at the loft door and waved the rest in. Valentine led the others inside, fighting a disquieting feeling that something was wrong. Perhaps his Indian blood perceived something tickling below his conscious threshold. He had spent enough time on the borders of the Kurian Zone to know that his sixth sense was worth paying attention to, though hard to qualify. The danger was too near somehow, but ill defined. He finally dismissed it as the product of overwrought nerves.

Valentine inspected the sturdy old barn. The water trough was full, which was good, and there were shaded lanterns and oil, which was better.

Patel posted the men to the doors and windows. Cracks in the walls of the time-ravaged structure made handy loopholes. The exhausted families threw themselves down in a high-walled inner corner. Valentine trotted to the hayloft ladder and began to climb. Someone had repaired a few of the rungs, he noticed as he went up squeaking wood. The barn's upper level smelled like bat urine. From the loft he watched his second scout, Gonzalez, backing into the barn, rifle pointed into the darkness.

"Gonzo's got wind of 'em, sir," Garnett reported from his perch at the upper door. "He always gets bug-eyed when they're around."

Three Wolves from downstairs joined them in the loft and took positions on each side of the barn. Valentine glanced down through a gap in the loft floor to the lower level, where Patel talked quietly to Gonzalez in the dim light of a screened lantern. Both glanced up into the loft. Gonzalez nodded and climbed the ladder.

"Sir, the sarge wanted me to show you this," he reported, extending a filthy and stinking piece of cloth drawn from his pocket.

Valentine reached out to take the rag, when a chorus of shrieks sounded from down the hill in the direction of the old road. He spun and ran to the wide loft door.

Gamett cursed. "Ravies, goddamn Ravies!"

The banshee wailing out of the midnight mists turned the back of his neck into a bristle-brush. They're here! He bent to the gap in the floor and called out to the Wolves. "Keep to your posts, look to your fronts! The Ravies might be a ruse. They could be on top of the hill already."

He ran to the ladder and clambered down the rungs two at a time, driving a splinter into the flesh opposite his thumb in his haste. Wincing, he unsnapped the leather strap of his parang sheath and drew his revolver.

"Uncle, the flares!" he shouted, but Patel knew better than to wait for an order. The veteran sergeant already stood at the gaping southern door, lighting one. A Wolf opened a lantern door so he could thrust it in. The high-pitched shrieking grew louder, until it filled the night.

The firework burst into flame, illuminating the barn with blue-white light and sharp black shadows. Patel wound up and threw the burning flare down the slope they had just traversed. Before it landed, he lit another and hurled it into the darkness, as well. Other Wolves copied him, tossing phosphorus candles in each direction.

Valentine stared down the hill, transfixed by a mob emerging into the glare. Running figures with arms thrashing as. if trying to swim through the air swept up toward the barn. Seemingly endless supplies of wind powered their screams. Their siren wail was paralyzing. They were human, or what amounted to human, considering their minds burned with madness, but with the wasted look of corpses and sparse streams of unkempt hair. Few wore more than tatters of clothing; most ran naked, their skin pale in the light of burning phosphorus.

"Don't let 'em in close enough to bite. Drop 'em, goddammit!" Patel bellowed.

Shots rang out in the enclosed lower level of the bam. Ravies fell, one rising again with blood pouring from his neck, to stagger a few paces and fall once more, this time for good. Another had a bullet tear through her shoulder, spinning her around like a puppet with tangled strings. She regained her balance and came on, screaming all the while. What looked like a scrawny ten-year-old boy stepped on one of the flaring candles without a glance.

Valentine watched as the human wave approached, dribbling bodies as the Wolves' bullets struck. He knew the Ravies served as a distraction for something else lurking in the night. He felt the Reaper stalking his mind, approaching from the darkness, even if he could not see its body.

The Reaper came, full of awful speed and power. A cloaked figure charged into the light, seeming to fly over the ground in a blur of motion.

"Hood!" a Wolf shouted, squeezing off a shot and working the bolt on his rifle. The caped and cowled figure, still twenty feet from the barn, made a leap and crashed bodily through the old planks and beams as if they were papier-mache.

The Reaper landed on all fours, arms and legs splayed like a spider. Before a gun could be turned in its direction, it sprang at the nearest Wolf, a shovel-bearded wedge of a man named Selbey. It was upon him before he could bring up his gun. The Hood's satchel-size mouth opened to display pointed ebony teeth. Large, inhuman jaws sank into Selbey's arm, thrown up in defense. The Wolf's scream matched those from outside as the thing opened its mouth to bite again.

Chaos reigned as the refugees began running. Wolves at the exits had to restrain them, taking up precious seconds when they should have been employing their guns. One Wolf pumped shot after shot, working the lever-action rifle from his hip, into the Reaper pressing Selbey to the detritus-covered floor. The Reaper fed, immune to the bullets hitting its heavy robes.

Valentine grabbed a candle flare from Patel's two remaining at the south door. He thrust the candle into the lantern, waiting for it to sputter into life. It caught after an eternity, and he ran toward the Hood.

The thing raised its blood-smeared face from its twitching victim to receive the burning end in its eye. It howled out its fury and pain and slapped the candle out of Valentine's hand with the speed of a cougar's paw. The flaming wand fell to the ground as the thing rose. Behind it, the Reaper's menacing black shadow filled the wall of the barn. Death reached for Valentine, who struggled to draw his blade from its sheath in time.

A bullet caught the Reaper in the armpit, staggering it. A heavier leather-clad missile hurled itself onto the Hood's back. Patel's body blow brought it down, and using every ounce of his formidable strength, the sergeant managed to keep it on the floor until Valentine brought his machete onto the back of its neck. The blade bit deep into flesh and bone, but failed to sever the head. Oily, ink-black ichor poured from the wound, but still the thing rose, rolling Patel off with a heave. The sergeant fought on and bore down on one arm, ignoring the deadly teeth opening for him. Valentine lashed out again with his machete, catching it under the jaw. The Reaper's head arced off to land with a thud next to Selbey's lifeless body.

"Jesus, they're in, they're in!" someone shouted.

A few Ravies, ghoulishly white in the glare of the candle, clambered through the gap in the wall created by the decapitated Reaper. Valentine shifted his parang to his left hand and reached for his pistol. The empty holster turned the movement into comic mime as he realized he had dropped the gun while getting the candle. But other Wolves drew their pistols, snapping off a shot at the shrieking forms.

The screaming grew into a chorus: a Ravie plunged in among the families. Valentine rushed to the corner to find the howling lunatic pinned against the wall by a man who'd had the presence of mind to grab an old pitchfork when the fight started. The Ravie had both hands on the haft of the weapon, trying to wrench the tines out of her belly, when Valentine came in, swinging his parang to strike and strike and strike again until she sank lifeless to the floor, at long last silent.

The screaming outside had ceased. The Wolves opened ammunition pouches and took bullets from belts and bandoliers. A final bullet or two ended the spasms of the few crawling, crippled targets still living and therefore still dangerous. The men in the loft called downstairs, in anxiety over their comrades. Valentine ignored the chatter and saw with a kind of weary grief that one of the wives had been bitten by the impaled Ravie. He went to check on Patel. The husky sergeant was on his feet, one arm hanging limp and useless, Valentine's pistol in his working hand.

Patel handed the pistol back to the lieutenant. "Quiet, up there! And keep your eyes peeled," the sergeant shouted at the uncomprehending floorboards above. He held his hurt arm closer to his body, grimacing.

"Broken collarbone, I think," he explained. "Could be my shoulder is out, as well. Are you okay, sir?"

"Hell, Patel, enough is enough. Next it'll be 'I hope you liked your drink." Let's get that arm in a sling, for a start." Valentine motioned an idle Wolf over to help his sergeant. He saw another of his men bandaging the Ravie bite on the woman as her anxious family crowded around. "We've got a widower there who doesn't know it yet," he said, sotto voce. His sergeant nodded with sad understanding, and Valentine thought of Patel's family. They had been taken by the Raving Madness five years ago.

The lieutenant walked through his shaken command, checking on his men, and came into the corner sheltering the escapees. He shot a significant glance at his Wolf attending to the woman; the man caught the hint and nodded. "The bleeding's stopped already, sir."

"Quick action, Mosley. Grab someone and get that"-he pointed at the lifeless Ravie-"out of here."

The candles outside were sputtering out. Valentine walked over to the ladder, intending to check with Gonzalez upstairs...

... when the floor suddenly tilted beneath his feet. Thrown to the floor, he saw an albino-white arm open a heavy trapdoor in an explosion of dirt, dried leaves, and twigs.

The barn had a cellar.

The Reaper got halfway out the trapdoor as the bullets zipped over Valentine's head. His Wolves, still keyed up from the fight, aimed their guns with lethal accuracy and pumped bullet after bullet into the yellow-eyed creature. Under the point-blank cross fire from five directions, the black-robed shape jerked wildly and fell back into the basement.

"Grenades," Valentine bellowed. Three of his men gathered at the trapdoor, now shooting down with pistols.

Striking matches or using the lanterns, two Wolves lit fuses on the bombs and hurled them down the square hole. Valentine grabbed the trapdoor and flung it shut. The rusty hinges squealed their complaints.

The first explosion threw the door forever off its aged fastenings, and the second boomed with an earsplitting roar. Smoke mushroomed from the square hole.

A Reaper sprang from the gap like something a magician had conjured from the smoke, arms nothing but two tarry stumps, and head a bony mask of horror. Even with its face blown off, the Reaper was on its feet and running, seeming to favor them with a splay-toothed grin. The guns rang out again, but the creature fled through the exit, knocking Patel aside like a bowling pin in the path of a cannonball as the sergeant attempted another body blow. A tattered and smoldering cape streaming out behind it as it ran, the Reaper disappeared into the darkness.

Some of the children had hands over their ears, screaming in pain. Valentine tried to shake the drunken sensation that had come over him, but it was no use. The acrid air of the barn was too thick to breathe. He staggered to the doorjamb and vomited.

An hour later, with the barn cleared of bodies except for the unfortunate Selbey, who lay in his poncho in the empty blackness of the blasted cellar, Gonzalez again shared his discovery with Valentine. His scout, after asking for permission to speak privately in the loft, presented him with a filthy strip of cloth.

Valentine examined the excrement-stained yellow rag with tired eyes.

"Uncle smelled something, sir, you know? He told me to check the area where we heard the bloodhounds real careful after everyone pulled out. I found this in the bushes where the Red River people... er, relieved themselves, sir," Gonzalez elaborated, half whispering.

He read the semiliterate scrawl by lantern light: "N + W, bam, about twenty gun, yrs trly."

Betrayal. That explains a thing or two. But which one is "yrs trly " ? Valentine wondered. He remembered a couple of: the farmhands had hurried to the bushes as they assembled for I the flight to the barn. He hadn't thought anything of it at the! time: the fear in the night had turned his own bowels to water, j as well.

He gathered three Wolves from downstairs and explained j what he wanted to do when the sun came up.

Mallow and his reserve platoon trotted up to the barn, just beating the sun. He suppressed the urge to hug the panting Lugger, who looked as tired as Valentine felt.

The senior lieutenant responded to Valentine's report with a low whistle. "One in the basement, huh? You had some bad luck, rookie. But it could have been worse. Good thing the was too thick to breathe. He staggered to the doorjamb and vomited.

An hour later, with the barn cleared of bodies except for the unfortunate Selbey, who lay in his poncho in the empty blackness of the blasted cellar, Gonzalez again shared his discovery with Valentine. His scout, after asking for permission to speak privately in the loft, presented him with a filthy strip of cloth.

Valentine examined the excrement-stained yellow rag with tired eyes.

"Uncle smelled something, sir, you know? He told me to check the area where we heard the bloodhounds real careful after everyone pulled out. I found this in the bushes where the Red River people... er, relieved themselves, sir," Gonzalez elaborated, half whispering.

He read the semiliterate scrawl by lantern light: "N + W barn, about twenty gun, yrs trly."

Betrayal. That explains a thing or two. But which one, "yrs trly"? Valentine wondered. He remembered a couple o the farmhands had hurried to the bushes as they assembled for the flight to the barn. He hadn't thought anything of it at the time: the fear in the night had turned his own bowels to water as well.

He gathered three Wolves from downstairs and explained what he wanted to do when the sun came up.

Mallow and his reserve platoon trotted up to the bam, jus beating the sun. He suppressed the urge to hug the panting Lugger, who looked as tired as Valentine felt.

The senior lieutenant responded to Valentine's report wit a low whistle. "One in the basement, huh? You had some bad luck, rookie. But it could have been worse. Good thing.

"A kid, whaddaya know," one of the men sighed. A couple of others swore.

The boy broke down, alternating threats and curses in between sobs. His ashen-faced father held his distraught wife. She already trembled with the weakness of the first stage of the disease that would claim her life within two or three more days, when she would have to be shot like a rabid dog. Mallow and Patel ignored the grieving parents and questioned the boy in time-honored good cop-bad cop fashion.

"Who put you up to this, boy?" Mallow asked, leaning to put his face below the boy's downcast eyes. "What did they promise you? If it were up to this guy here, he'd snap your neck with his good arm. I can't help you unless you talk to me. Tell you what, you leave another note, only write on it what we tell you, and you won't get hanged. Can't promise anything else, but you won't hang."

The boy's fear exploded into anger. "You don't get it, do you? They're in charge, not you. They make the laws. They run the show. An' when they get tired of you, you'll be emptied an' the Grogs'll have the leftovers! Them that don't want to die gotta go along with orders."

Valentine, sick with fatigue, stepped outside to watch the dawn. As the yellow-orange sun burned through the morning haze, he wondered what doom of fate had selected him to be born into such a fucked-up time.

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